Politics and politicians have always been rich deposits for comedians and comedians often earn their stripes in their university days (the Chaser boys are from Sydney Uni); so it is almost inevitable that student comedy groups mine the political saltmines for material. Baby Boy Bolognese (BBB), born of the University of Sydney student body has excavated Australian political history to produce HOLT! – The Musical.
Holt was something of a political nonentity, more famous for his swimming disappearance off Cheviot Beach than anything else. But from such an unprepossessing persona, BBB has managed to stage what is for the most part, a smart, sassy and entertaining pierce of theatre. The book by Alexander Richmond takes some delicious liberties with the truth (which from a political viewpoint is always somewhat elastic anyway) and the music and lyrics by Jos Markerink and Jacinta Gregory show a good understanding of how a musical has to work. There is a balance of ballads and dance numbers, comedy songs and soulful solos. One of the strongest sequences is the LBJ scene. Placards and chant ask the American President “How many kids have you killed today?” and Holt and LBJ’s relationship is portrayed as some sort of homo-erotic boys club, with Holt ( a nicely twee and vacuous Fred Pryce) slavishly adopting LBJ’s policies in Vietnam. Not the first suggestion of how Holt was led by powerful men – Robert Menzies (Clare McCallum in a clever, funny and uncanny portrayal) often refers to Holt as his “Greek boy”.
The ensemble is strong and every cast member gives fully, bouncing around the stage exuberantly bringing life to their various roles and personalities. They are supported by a very fine music ensemble under the baton of Laura Heuston with not a note out of place or tune. Jestika Chand sound be commended for her control of sound – every microphone perfectly adjusted to the performer. Getting all the sound right in a musical is a huge challenge – the slightest error is magnified. This crew had it under control. Written with an eye to minimalism, the set is simple with the most striking effect being the huge Australian flag projected on to the scrim.
Act 2 is perhaps not as strong as Act 1. In the “raucous retelling of Australia’s history”, the plot abandons any attempt at verisimilitude and dives into a completely imagined future. Whilst this is an absurdist take, it is at time somewhat incoherent. The story offers several strands but seems uncertain of its focus and purpose. Absurdism does have a point; it cannot be just silliness. Some of the songs and actions just did not serve the musical well and it was this half which smacked most of the uni student genre.
This is a musical with legs. It has some terrific moments. With some work on refining certain sections ( particularly some re-working of Act 2) it could be as wickedly savage and funny as Keating. Certainly the Richmond, Markerink and Gregory show a promising future as writers of Australian musicals and comedy. The audience obviously thought so.
Let us hope BBB can engineer a longer season with a bit of a re-worked script. It certainly would be work seeing.
Kate Stratford – Theatre Now & On The Town